Why Rosemary Shrager is at the top of her game

Rosemary Shrager at the Great Yorkshire Show
Rosemary Shrager at the Great Yorkshire Show
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The clue is in the title. The Cookery Theatre at the Great Yorkshire Show, a fortnight from now, is a temple to food as entertainment, and Rosemary Shrager is its high priestess.

There, for the last decade, her flock has gathered on deckchairs to watch her conjure signature dishes from pheasant, rabbit and venison, and to wonder whether they might be able to do it as well when they get home.

Game is on its way back, she believes. Mutton, too. “Mutton casserole – oh my God, it’s the best flavour in the whole world,” she drools.

But when, in almost the same breath, she points out that it is a cut that’s barely half the price of sirloin, a different side to Ms Shrager emerges.

Yes, she is passionate about good food, but more zealous still about doing something to end what she sees as the disparity in its supply.

She has been an evangelist for Yorkshire cuisine on two dozen TV shows, but it was one of her latest that opened her eyes to the way the elderly are fed and generally perceived.

The Real Marigold Hotel, a documentary series in which celebrities in their 50s and beyond travel to India and around the world to experience the culture, exposed to her an uncomfortable truth about catering back home.

“I’ve found it really interesting to see the way they treat their elderly in the eastern world and the respect they have for them,” says Ms Shrager, whose workload belies the fact that she is herself just about of pensionable age.

“Compare that with the way we behave over here. We have nothing for the elderly, we do not treat them with respect, we do not look after them in the way we should be they should be looked after.”

“We don’t seem to feel here that the elderly have anything to offer. Over there, they mean are everything.”

She can point to some first-hand experience of the situation in Britain, having spent time in the kitchens of care homes.

“Food is very important in these homes – it’s one of the things the residents look forward to – and I wanted to see what was going on.

“I got access with someone and we looked in the cupboards. They were full of tins of spaghetti hoops – we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. That was their supper.

“The daily allowance is just so small. It ranges from £2.30 to nearly £6 in a really good home, and that’s for all day. So in the low-cost homes you can just imagine what they’re given. It’s unreal.”

She spits out the words with barely concealed disgust. She has formed relationships now, she says, with the operators of some homes to help them source fresh, local produce.

But the gulf between theatrical cookery and the real, day-to-day variety is, she acknowledges, a hard one to bridge, and the problem not confined to the care sector.

What’s more, television doesn’t always help. It’s one thing to watch from the comfort of a sofa as someone else prepares a fabulous meal; quite another to get up and do it yourself.

“It’s aspirational, isn’t it?” she says. “Watching it being done is a pleasure in itself, but it’s like Blue Peter – people feel they can’t replicate it with anything like the same ease.”

The sheer number of cookery shows also act against each other, she thinks. Watching has become a substitute for doing.

“They put pressure on people to produce these wonderful meals, when what they should be doing is keeping it simple. And a lot of people put pressure on themselves to impress their guests – and that’s fine if it’s a real hobby, I can understand the passion that goes into that – but when it’s just part of life, people have got other things to do with their time.

“So serve one vegetable instead of three or five, and one pudding, not three.”

Does anyone really offer their guests three desserts?

“We always used to,” she says, “but honestly – why give people a blooming choice?”

Her next book, due out in October, does indeed go back to basics. Rosemary Shrager’s Cookery Course is a blueprint for those who wish to learn how to poach an egg, bake a chicken and potato pie or simmer the lumps out of a béchamel sauce.

They are techniques she perfected in an apprenticeship with Jean-Christophe Novelli and others, as head chef at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle in the Western Isles, and at Swinton Park in Ripon, where for 10 years she led cookery courses.

It was in the Highlands that she developed her fondness for mutton. “That’s all I used up there. I found it sweeter, more mature. And we had lambs all over the place – the black-head Suffolk and Sussex ones – and they were very hardy.

“But you’ve got to cook it very slowly – that’s the secret. Same for anything else that’s a bit tough.”

At the Great Yorkshire Show, twice daily, she will impart similar tips – but it is the afternoon Game Cookery Theatre that she most relishes. Here, at the other end of the kitchen scale from those tins of spaghetti hoops, she will demonstrate how to make venison ravioli, roast crown of pheasant, or whatever else takes her fancy.

“I do it every year,” she says. “Basically, I do rabbit or venison because I absolutely adore rabbit and I have so many recipes for them you wouldn’t believe.

“I love venison too, if it’s not been hung too long. It’s healthy, very easy to cook but also very expensive, which is why I like to promote those cheaper cuts. I don’t think people understand about those.”

Expensive or not, game is seeing a revival, she believes, though she doubts that rabbit ever will. Not with so many pets ones around.

“Game cookery is coming in. More and more people know about venison – far more than 10 or even five years ago. It’s a more healthy product.

“Pheasant is becoming more popular, too. People are beginning to understand it more but they don’t know how to cook it. It’s a dry old bird – you have to know what you’re doing because it can become as tough as old boots very quickly. That’s my job – to teach people how to do it.”

Her fondness for the classroom that the Great Yorkshire Show affords her, and for the county itself, is in her blood. Her great-grandfather, Colonel JR Twentyman, owned Kirby Misperton Hall, now part of Flamingo Land, and hired Chinese workers to build gardens that resembled the ones he had seen in Shanghai. They are still there.

His love for horticulture has been passed down the generations, and Ms Shrager’s latest project is a garden in which everything is edible.

“Everything has to be vegetables, beverage, teas, salads, medieval herbs – I even have cinnamon paths,” she says.

“I got my supplier to get me a sack of cassia, which is crushed cinnamon, and I have it on all my paths so that when it rains, it smells like Christmas. I love it, I absolutely love it.”